Abidjan’s Lout

A real bad boy, in the true sense of the word, is an outlaw. A boy who comes from the back streets. He is against society. Abou Bourguiba, ex-boss of the Mapless, one of the main gangs in Treichville

The gloglo (ownership of a nouchi)

Abidjan is made up of ten areas, simply referred to as nouchi, in the language of the young thugsí, and is distinct from the more affluent areas like Cocody, Le Plateau, Marcory (the residential part) and the poorer areas like Treichville, Adjame, Atecoube, Koumassi, Marcory (those without power lines), Abobo, Port-Bouet, Yopougon . All these contain shantytowns and drug trafficking zones which the police don’t visit. It is in these places that the « bad boy « tries to establish his territory the gloglo, generally a little way away from where he stays. Without gloglo, there’s no legitimacy for the gang. The “bad boy” system rests upon occupation with territory. Thus the family of Farem establishes itself in the Boston area in Marcory.

To be able to control a gloglo, all week we exercise even so, we beat each other among ourselves to have good djatti (muscles), we meet one another and we hang-out in the area. When we arrive there is hostility. This makes us take the most well known roads and we hit all the guys. Once, twice and then its over, the ambassador is ready says Tchoré.

Once they have a territory, the gangsters have to defend themselves against other gangs. There are many gangs: the Siciliens from Marcory, Black Power and Mapless from Treichville, New Black from Abobo… The fights don’t stop. They try to prove their strength by those who are able to cross the most gloglos. The gloglo is a type of adventure where they break the laws of the country, within which the gangsters can play at being the gang leaders. Its an easy way to escape the police. Its also a haven where girls, money and drugs seem to be within reach.

“We extort money from people but we do it in style because that’s part of being a bad boy. People are enjaillés (happy) with the movement, it’s them we rip off. They are obliged to give to us because they know that the day they face brakata (problems) they come to us. So we know they will pay,” says Spencer.


When we arrive in a place, we don’t sell just because of our reputation as « bad boys. We sell the feeling, the look, everything.» says Bony Farem.

The style of the “bad boy,” is firstly in his physical appearance. He must have an impressive muscular stature, which at first glance gives the impression of a warrior. His muscular body contributes to his specific way of walking.

To prove you are strong there is a noble walk. When you walk you knock yourself on the side by lifting your shoulders a little, you bend your leg to show that you are supple and that at any time you are ready to swing around and take aim.

You also show that there is strength in your arms by lifting your chest, your head up high and then you move on, says Tchoré.

Finally, the bad boys has clothes and a hair-style, which is not seen in the Ivory Coast, often inspired by the black American gangs, which are expensive imported clothes and shoes. So they distinguish themselves twice as much by distancing themselves from the nouchi and confirming – in the true sense of the term – that they are not tramps. The « bad boys « create their own image. This became so strong that at the beginning of the 90’s, it even took over from the image to which they initially made reference. Every guy that is well built, dressed in tight jeans and has a shaven head and earrings could pass for a bad boy.


It’s the left hand that washes the right. You have the bucks and I have the strength. You need protection from me and I come. But in exchange you’ll give me bucks says Bony Farem.

It is accepted now that bad boys assume the service of guards as events happen or that they work as bodyguards for which they are paid. To be a bad boy has become an occupation in itself. The employers close their eyes to the disturbances of the employees in a particular way knowing that they are not able to control them even if they use them. A fragile balance is established.

In 1989, the big bad boys with an average age of 25 years, begin to aspire to a more tranquil way of life. Especially since they understood that their interests are no longer in the streets. This becomes more and more risky. Criminality has reached frightening proportions. The police have received orders to shoot all troublemakers on sight if they are caught in the act. The residents organize their own militia in the area. Often the bad boys are involved with thieves when they decide to get out of the thug system. At the initiative of those close to power a security company, ‘Force One’, was created. It included many of the bad boys, namely Abou Bourguiba, who was head of a big gang from Treichville, the Mapless. Although this company itself would have a short life span, the idea will be circulated and this will have important repercussions in very high places.

1990, the year of the elections, was a turning point. The 30th of April after many months of protests, looting, strikes and mutinies, the multiparty democracy was authorised in the Ivory Coast. The main opposition party is the FPI (Ivorian Popular Front). The presidency is afraid of the thugsí being taken on by the opposition, and the 9th of May, President Houphouet-Boigny received a delegation of bad boys at his private residence. In the days that followed a ‘march of support’ was organized. Six hundred bad boys were wearing t-shirts in the procession saying bad boys of the President. A monthly salary of 50 000 CFA francs was proposed to them. In return they must accept to be attached to the presidency, to the judiciary, as well as the Ministry of Interior. The S.V (Voluntary Security) system was put in place.

We don’t get involved in politics. We always go for bucks. We are not the PDCI or something else. We have a big family to take care of, says Farem Junior.


The bad boys believed that they would be able to play the political parties and the government. Compromised and booed by public opinion, too visible all of a sudden, the gangsters found themselves with a very weak system. The bosses have withdrawn, the gangs have become wild themselves. Individualism has replaced the family spirit. Financial abundance that represents the Voluntary Security system has made a new generation of bad boys attracted by rapid short-term gain, which does not necessarily go with the gangster spirit.

A real man, is someone who fights with his two arms and two legs with which he is born. But now everything has changed in this country. The guys move around with knives, pistols and all of that. These people want to rule but can not count on their own strength. I would say that physically the Ivorian youth is weak, but mentally they have become worse than before, says Tchoré.

Enriched by the S.V. system many of these bad boys try to emigrate. Paris, London, New York…. In these cities, far from their past, the former gangsters try to buy themselves new direction. The majority of them who stay become vigils in the innumerable security companies, who themselves become very important during these criminal times. In the area of Plateau, which represents the largest concentration of luxury business and banks, there is not one road where one doesn’t see them, dressed in uniforms with ranger boots, truncheons and walkie-talkies in their hands. The R.A.S., group of singers, continue to recycle the mythology of gangster life in a commercial afro-dance where their harsh looks and their inherited street games create a furore.

The 7th of December, 1993, the death of President Houphouet-Boigny rang the last bell for the S.V. system. No longer the quickest way to paradise, the « bad boys system stopped by itself. Of course some bad boys remain there, the nostalgic ones or the stubborn ones as John Pollolo who killed a boy with bare hands because he decided his time was up. Today, in Abidjan, the masters of the streets are called hijackers – robbers – and dealers. In these intensifying circumstances violence can only increase. At what point will this explode?

Coming of Age in Nigerian Moviemaking

The 1970s signalled the beginning of indigenous efforts in Nigerian filmmaking. Francis Oladele made Kongi’s Harvest written by Wole Soyinka in 1971 and soon after that, Ola Balogun made Alpha in Paris. Balogun later followed with other works like Amadi, Ajani Ogun, Money Power and others films, while Jab Adu made Bisi, Daughter of the River Goddess and Ladele made The Eye of Life, which was never completed.

While Oladale and Balogun may be regarded as the pioneers of filmmaking in Nigeria, it was Hubert Ogunde who convincingly demonstrated that Yoruba films could become a popular entertainment art form. His Aiye, Jaiyesinmi, Aropin n’tenia and Ayanmo remain the Yoruba classics in filmmaking. The Ogunde phenomenon helped to strengthen and expand earlier experiments by Adeyemi Afolayan who had collaborated with Ola Balogun on Ajani Ogun and Ija Ominira. Ogunde also pointed the way to the likes of Moses Olaiya, Isola Ogunsola, Awada Kerikeri Organisation and a few other Yoruba travelling theatre practitioners who quickly embraced the screen as an alternative means of projecting their stage arts. Ladi Ladebo, Eddie Ugboma, Sanya Dosumu and Sadiq Balewa are other notable filmmakers who contributed to this revolution.

Looking back however, the revolution seems to have turned out to be still born. Nearly thirty years after the first feature films were made, worthwhile full-length feature films made in Nigeria by Nigerians can almost be counted on ten fingers. The continual lament on the lips of Nigerian filmmakers is the scourge of an ailing economy. To make matters worse, the government’s main effort in assisting the growth of Nigerian filmmaking was grossly misdirected. The siting of the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) in Jos, far away from the Osogbo, Ibadan, Ososa and Lagos axis which was home to the then budding Nigerian filmmakers, was a debacle. It was the government pandering to the film industry that produced feeble attempts resulting in such monumental failures as The Black President in which one person acted, produced, directed etc.

When in 1989 Ken Nnebue, a trader of Igbo origin brought his entrepreneurial instincts to bear on the vestiges of the Yoruba alarinjo (travelling theatre) he was indeed starting another Nigerian moviemaking revolution. Before Nnebue, Muyideen Aromire had earlier made Ekun in VHS format, but it was Nnebue’s Aje ni Iya mi that opened the floodgates for home video production in Nigeria. Most of the formally trained Nigerian filmmakers sniggered at these efforts in the beginning, but the Igbo entrepreneur was undaunted. Nnebue’s revolution caught on as the likes of Aromire demonstrated great virility in churning out works that later became recognized as a little more than exercises in boredom for the viewers.

However, the dearth of alternative entertainment, the increasing penetration of domestic video cassette recorders in Nigerian homes and the quest for quick money continued to fuel the video revolution while the school of formally trained filmmakers were still waiting for the opportunity to make films on celluloid. Of course they had reasons to be hopeful. Not too long before then, Tunde Alabi-Hundeyin’s weekly production of Tellydrama on OGTV had become very popular and his episodic screen presentation of D.O. Faguwa’s Ireke Onibudo brought him to the attention of Benton Films. Benton’s celluloid rehash of Ireke Onibudo, under the directorial eyes of Tunde Alabi-Hudeyin, was a huge success and indeed a further pointer to the possibilities of locally produced films. Further more, Tunde Kelani, having left NTA, had successfully made Iwa on celluloid and had contributed to Ireke Onibudo, Kanakana, Papa Ajasco and a host of other films. Other formally trained filmmakers like Femi Aloba, a sound specialist, were also getting some opportunities to contribute on various film projects. However, none of these hopeful filmmakers ever expected the depths into which military recklessness would throw the Nigerian economy.

Nnebue, having acquired confidence from his tango with Yoruba theatre artists, sought to widen his market. He therefore dumped Yoruba productions, turning to productions in English. He has never looked back since. Instead, his confidence has been bolstered by the Ejiro and Amata brothers, Amaka Igwe, Opa Williams and a host of others who have turned what started as a play thing into a veritable industry worth millions of Naira.

As time went on, more Igbo traders began to see the potentials of the fledgling industry and finance trickled in from various quarters to fund English and Igbo movies. While the Igbo producers sought to improve the quality of their productions by increasing production budgets, their Yoruba brothers held back, trying to increase profit by reducing expenditure.

Hello Nigeria!

Hello Nigeria! is a film that aims to unravel and understand Nigerian society by examining the contents of their very own celebrity/society magazine Ovation.

The film is actually the first in a series of programmes that I am doing where I attempt to dissect a non-Western culture by examining their celebrity magazines. The series is called “Hello World!”, but it was seeing the Nigerian society magazine, Ovation that gave me the idea for the series in the first place.

Launched in London in the mid ’90s after the magazine’s charismatic publisher, Dele Momodu, was forced to flea Nigeria under the military dictatorship of President Abacha, Ovation magazine sells not only in Nigeria but all over Africa, the USA, Britain and the Caribbean. It has a monthly circulation of around 100,000.

When I first saw Ovation I was bowled over by its glossiness and its brightness. It also looked exactly like the British celebrity magazine, Hello!, but when I flicked through Ovation pages, I became aware of how very different it was from the British version. For example, Britain is obsessed with its royal family, soap stars, models, movie actors and American celebrities. In Ovation, doctors appear more frequently than actors or even footballers and funerals are presented as glamorous society events.

One of the mottos of Ovation according to its charismatic publisher, Dele Momodu, is that “in Nigeria everybody is a star”, so we see a lot of very ordinary people featured in their pages that appear to be celebrities. This creates a peculiar situation where Nigerians all over the diaspora read their own celebrity magazine to catch up with friends as opposed to merely reading a magazine to learn about famous people they could never hope to meet…

The idiosyncracies and value systems of any given society is apparent in these magazines and the people that are featured in these magazines also reveal certain truths about their national culture.

“Hello World!” is a series about identity, pride and aspirations, and in my opinion, there is a lot to be learned when you examine people’s aspirations. Forget the folk traditions and rural ways. I want to contest this underlying assumption that the repository for cultural authenticity automatically lies in a culture’s poorer citizens. This assumption, I believe has its roots in anthropology where the tradition was to ‘study down,’ i.e. to study those at the bottom rung of the social pyramid when visiting another culture. The philosophy of anthropology has since moved on, but there is actually nothing new in the idea that rurality, and to some extent, poverty signifies cultural authenticity. It is an idea espoused by the European Romantics amongst others. Coupled with the universal truth that bad news is more sensational and therefore more sellable, then it is hardly surprising that it is the bad news from Africa that dominates the Western media.

There is, however, also the issue of who is to blame for this negative coverage. The view that Nigerians themselves may be to blame for giving the press enough stories to write about is expressed in the film. This makes the gap between the perception and reality of Africa wide and complex. This Nigerian self-celebration is, according to its publisher, a necessity in a world where African success is often seen as an anomaly and not a natural occurrence. So despite its glossy and apparently frivolous appearance and content, Ovation is political. The magazine throws up important debates about who Nigerians think they are, how they want to be perceived and whether they are justified in this desire.

It was a real education making the film. Due to a (serious) lack of funding, I have been unable to actually travel to Nigeria. So this film focuses slightly more on the Nigerian community in Britain. But as the magazine was started in England and the publisher, up until recently, lived in England, it seemed an appropriate place to start. Having grown up in the UK, I’ve felt somewhat isolated from the Nigerian community (even the Nigerian community in England) but through making the film, I have met an awful lot of Nigerians and even made a few friends. I’ve become aware of how little we all know about the towns and cities we live in. We know nothing of the characters, the frustration and the ambition that exist right under our noses. I’ve been able to meet Nigerians from all walks of life from footballers and actresses to shopkeepers and priests and it’s been an enormous privilege as well as an education.

Hope you enjoy the film!

The Emergence of Ethnographic Film Practice: Past Travels and Future Itineraries

The history of discourse on ethnographic film has been rife with contentions and opposing viewpoints. There have been contestations over its very definition to the issue of its proper role within the discipline of anthropology. There is not even a consensus as to when ethnographic film first emerged. A few people would cite as the genesis, the Lumière’s Arrival of a Train from 1895 and the many short actualities made and shown by traveling agents and local people trained in the equipment. It is important to note that at this time (between 1895 and 1905) Eastern peoples saw Western peoples as well as vice versa. Traveling filmmakers/projectionists both took footage of distant cultures and viewed their footage throughout their travels. These were some of the first glimpses, though often brief, that most people had of people from distant cultures moving and doing ordinary things. But most anthropologists don’t think of Arrival of a Train or the actualities that followed as ethnography at all, despite the fact that the people portrayed were not actors, often non-Western, and the action was often of the everyday. I would suggest that perhaps anthropology at that time saw itself, in Franz Boaz’s description, as a salvage operation. Consequently, what counted as ethnographic films were those whose subjects were not only non-Western, but non-urban and generally lived in societies whose ways of life were threatened by contact with the modern world.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that many accounts of ethnographic film begin with Edward Curtis’s In the Land of the Headhunters (1914), a fictional romantic melodrama made among the Kwaikutl. Despite depicting costumes and dances of ethnographic interest, there was little integration of these scenes into the larger narrative, nor was there any attempt to portray individuals in depth. Furthermore, the headhunting scenes and the evil witch character were obviously added to suit Western audience expectations. These issues were later resolved in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). As Brian Winston has observed, while both Curtis and Flaherty utilized native Americans recreating their past culture, Flaherty created drama out of everyday events like igloo building and hunting, rather than imposing an external narrative (100). Also to Flaherty’s credit, he spent long periods of time living in the community he filmed and screened rushes for the participants. In these ways he was well ahead of his time, as participatory filmmaking seemed to disappear until Jean Rouch brought it to the forefront in the 1950’s. Nanook also brings up an important problem that continued to plague ethnography for several decades: the tendency to mythologize the native individual and to fix native culture at a seemingly changeless time untouched by modernity or the influence of other cultures. As Eliot Weinberg has aptly stated, “the struggle against hunger in the Arctic persisted whether the Eskimos carried harpoons or rifles.(6)”

Why was it then necessary to ignore the current struggles of the communities being filmed in favor of constructing idealized images of the pure, primitive man? Perhaps there is an underlying desire to view such cultures as a window into Western culture’s own past, as a living evolutionary remnant. Viewing them in this way allows the West to designate the multiple histories of different cultures as simply earlier stages of its own cultural development, authenticating its colonialist desires and erasing its own role in jeopardizing native ways of life. This tendency, which Fatimah Tobing Rony has termed the “taxidermic” impulse, persisted well into the ’50s as we can see by examining John Marshall’s The Hunters (1958), a film of four !Kung San men hunting giraffe (15).

There are many similarities between Flaherty and Marshall: neither were trained anthropologists, both spent a long period of time with their subjects, both shaped their footage into a unified narrative, and both of their films portray courageous men fighting for survival in a harsh environment. Marshall’s film also seeks to portray individuals in an archetypical fashion, offering simplistic accounts of the hunters’ personalities which we must take on his word, since the film offers little visual information by which to distinguish the characters. The film ends with the words, “And the old men remembered. And the young men listened. And so the story of the hunt was told.” This ending insinuates the continuity of the (false) narrative and projects the culture into a static, mythic temporality. It also misrepresents the importance of hunting in !Kung society which relies primarily on gathering for its sustenance.

It is important to note that Marshall later criticized this film and turned toward record-footage of discrete events in attempt to make films that were more useful in the academic context. In the ’70s he went on to take a more proactive role in making people aware of the changes being wrought on !Kung San culture as result of their being dispossessed of their land and the incursion of missionary and military activities in the area. In N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman (1979-80), he reworked older footage with new footage in an attempt to show how the !Kung lifestyle was changing via the story of one woman’s life over two decades and the effects of Western influence on her relationship with her community.

The problems that Curtis, Flaherty, and Marshall bring to light make it easy to see why anthropologists have been wary of how film has been used to convey ethnographic information and how the requirements of narrative can result in an anthropologically suspect product. It is understandable then that anthropologists’ discourse on ethnographic film has been cautious of the demands of art and narrative editing. Furthermore, the desire to authenticate cultural anthropology as an academic discipline and hard science led to questions of the role of film in methodology.

Not only was it important to understand how film can be used to (re)present cultures, but also how film could be used to gather data, or rather, evidence in the form of record-footage. In this regard, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s Balinese study in the 1930’s is an important and illustrative case. Mead tried to treat the camera as a primary recording device and not simply as a mechanism to illustrate a thesis, a proposition aided by new, lighter 16mm equipment. She suggested that note-taking was an inadequate way of recording behavior and ritual activity, and that recording these largely visual events on film would allow for greater analysis and reanalysis of data. There was an underlying assumption that an examination of a culture’s psychological characteristics could be made from a study of their bodies and movements, and that film (and photography) may allow fieldworkers to capture and represent such visual data in a fuller way than written accounts alone (Lakoff, 2).

This notion of using film to capture patterns of human behavior for scientific analysis has a long history, dating back to Félix-Louis Regnault who in 1895 took high-speed chronophotography footage of a Wolof woman making pots at the Exposition Ethnographique de l’Afrique Occidentale. His subsequent films aim to compare movement across different cultures, but specifically to demarcate physical differences amongst races(deBrigard, 5). Mead extended Regnault’s purely physiological studies to an exploration of how behavior can be used to understand the “ethos” of a culture, defined by Bateson as “a culturally standardized system of organization of the instincts and emotions of individuals” (Bateson & Mead, xi).

However, the films resulting from this study, The Character Formation in Different Culture Series and Trance and Dance in Bali, do not succeed in fulfilling her goals. The observations and analysis spelled out in the voice-over narration seldom seem conclusive on the basis of the corresponding visuals. Also Mead’s own call for using long takes was not apparent in Trance and Dance which is edited for continuity and has many cuts. This contradiction may have been a result of Bateson’s having different notions of how film should record an event, favoring a more exploratory approach than Mead (Jacknis, 161). Finally, it seems that the copious data was never fully analyzed or reanalyzed the way she had hoped it would be. Despite this failure, Mead continued to support the idea that film could be useful as anthropological data given that it included long stretches of unedited footage, that is if it is mainly record-footage (Mead, 9). Alan Lomax, Karl Heider, and Timothy Asch also supported this idea, further adding that synch sound, utilization of long shots that encompass whole bodies and events (as opposed to close-ups), and accompanying written material are necessary if film is to be anthropologically sound (Heider, 6; Asch, 199-204).

This tendency towards using the camera as an observational tool was further supported by the concurrent documentary styles of direct cinema and cinema verité, which were somewhat obsessed with the idea of achieving verisimilitude to the actual experience of watching people and events unfold with a minimum of interference. It did not take long to problematize the initial arrogance of being an innocent and invisible observer and the fact that there were serious ethical problems associated with the surveillance mode of filming. In addition there were serious limitations of what record-footage or strict observationist cinema could show. David MacDougall points out that if filmmakers limit themselves to only unprovoked manifestations of behavior during filming, they often do not get access to the events and information that subjects take for granted (MacDougall, 124). Also since human behavior is such a tangled web of contingencies, associations, and motivations, simply rendering an event faithfully in the sense of duration and natural sound is obviously insufficient to the task of understanding the meaning of what’s actually taking place.

Thus, a new form of participatory filmmaking was called for, one in which there was an understanding that what is being recorded is the relationship between the observer and the observed. This has been accomplished in several ways. MacDougall cites as an example Jean Rouch’s experimentations with role playing in Jaguar, which allowed the subjects to play roles and create their own images of themselves (128). Another very different approach was used by Sol Worth and John Adair in their project, Through Navaho Eyes (1972) which allowed Navaho people to make their own films in an attempt to see whether, in fact, they have a different ways of seeing and ordering visual space. While these films obviously make some assumptions about why and how subjects choose to portray themselves, they do point towards a new direction for ethnographic film which does not eschew the evocative and experiential potentials of cinema. They also suggest a realization that film, though not equivocal to written accounts, may in fact provide altogether different kinds of information.

Moreover, rather than pigeonholing film as either scientific instrument or inherently narrativizing / aestheticizing mechanism, ethnographers can use it as a reflexive interpretive device that leaves open the possibility of multiple points of view. Having had to confront the fact that the complexity of human behavior always eludes both scientific specificity and broad generalizations, it seems we are poised to explore how more complexly structured films utilizing satire, argument, and a full range of aesthetic techniques fulfill this task.

Lastly, it seems that prescriptive formulations of the definition of ethnographic films should give way to an acceptance of a variety of techniques that serve the diversity and specificity of the subjects themselves and which are better suited to the particular relationship that exists between the filmmaker and participant.

Ghanaian Popular Cinema and the Magic in and of Film

Since the late 1980s, a booming video feature film industry evolved in Ghana. While established filmmakers both within and outside the state-owned Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC) found it extremely difficult to generate funds for film production, formally untrained people of various backgrounds — from cinema projectionists to car mechanics — took ordinary VHS video cameras, wrote a brief outline, assembled actors (from TV or just “from the street”), and produced full fledged feature films which appeared to be tremendously successful in urban Ghana, and especially in Accra. Established professional filmmakers initially met the initiatives of non-professionals and their use of the medium of video with suspicion. Yet, when they noticed the extraordinary success which these productions had in Ghana and realized that screening these films in local cinemas could generate sufficient funds to sustain a viable video film industry, they also turned to film production in the video format. Moreover, in order to improve the productions made by untrained — and, gradually, self-trained filmmakers, the GFIC offered editing services and other forms of advice to filmmakers in exchange for the right to show the film in its own cinemas in Accra first. Gradually, production networks and systems of distribution evolved and since the beginning of the 1990s, each year saw the release of about fifty video movies made by private and GFIC producers.

Over time, differences pertaining to technical standards of films made by formally trained and self-trained filmmakers gradually faded. And so did differences regarding their social position in the field of film production. This was, above all, a result of the decision of the Ghanaian state to sell seventy percent of the shares of the GFIC to the Malaysian TV production company, Sistem Televisyen Malaysia Berhad of Kuala Lumpur in 1996, as a consequence of which the GFIC transformed into Gama Media System Ltd.[1] As this foreign company focuses on TV productions and shows little interest in cinema, popular movie production was increasingly left in the hands of independent producers (both self-trained and formally trained[2]) who were all obliged to make it in Ghana’s newly evolving “showbiz” market. In order to generate funds for the next film and a usually small income, filmmakers solely depend on the taste of the audiences.

One distinctive, recurring feature of Ghanaian movies concerns the emphasis put on the visualization of otherwise invisible occult forces, and the fact that their narrative is usually placed in the framework of the Christian dualism of God and the Devil, who is regarded as leading all “powers of darkness” (see Meyer 1999a). These preferences do not primarily and necessarily reflect the convictions of the filmmakers, but above all the ideas of their audiences. As such, these films resonate well with what occupies people in Accra and other urban areas in south Ghana and hence form exciting sources for anthropologists.

Exactly because of this emphasis on occult forces and their incorporation into the domain of the Christian Devil, popular cinema has been subject to severe criticism on the part of elite film makers and intellectuals.[3] Movies made by private producers are often ridiculed and denounced as imbued in “superstition” — an assault also levelled against their audiences.[4] Moreover, occasionally these films are charged with representing Africans in inferior terms, and thereby confirming racist distortions and subverting the development of national pride.[5] Private video producers are accused of turning a medium meant to serve “development” and “enlightenment” into a vehicle for the expression of ugly matters which should have no place in modern, national Ghanaian culture.

In this essay, I present and discuss two films which are representative of popular cinema in that they foreground how otherwise invisible, occult forces impinge on the visible world. I will show how a quintessentially modern medium-like film, which has been used ever since colonial times to educate and enlighten people through images, has been appropriated in order to express people’s concerns about the hidden presence of the occult in modern urban society. I will argue that the visualization of the dark, secret aspects lurking behind the surface of modern city life concerns an “enlightenment” in another sense than usually intended by modernist protagonists. In so doing, I find it useful to follow a distinction proposed by Michael Taussig during the conference on which this volume is based between revelation and exposure.

While the notion of exposure is part of a hierarchical perspective affirming the superiority of scientific thinking which unmasks magic as false and based on mere superstition, the notion of revelation criticises magic from within, thereby leaving intact the idiom itself. I will show that, contrary to the elites’ expectations of the medium of film to promote superior forms of knowledge and behaviour leading beyond magic, watching popular movies does not make people go beyond magical imagination towards increased levels of rationality, but rather constitutes, or at least confirms, the domain of the occult at the very moment of its revelation. It brings light into the dark and, at the same time, contributes to establish the domain of occult forces as part and parcel of modern city life (cf. Geschiere 1997). I argue that, in so doing, it brings about a break with colonial cinema and realizes the magical potential of movies which is so often ascribed to this art form in the West.


While the medium of film was introduced to Ghana by private businessmen,[6] who opened cinemas in urban areas and employed cinema vans to tour the country side (especially the cocoa—growing areas) in the course of the 1920s,[7] the Information Services Department of the colonial government actively engaged in film only in 1940.[8] It drove its green-yellow Bedford buses all around the colony and assembled people at spaces in the open air in order “to show documentary films and newsreels to explain the colonial government’s policies to people in towns and villages free of charge” (Sakyi 1996: 9). An important aspect of this information service was propaganda films about the Second World War which were produced by the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) in London (cf. Diawara 1992: 3). After the war, the unit also started to produce educational films and a number of feature films which were screened in Britain’s African colonies. Contrasting the Western and African way of life, these films represented the former as an embodiment of “civilization” and the latter as “backward” and “superstitious” customs to be left behind (cf. Diawara 1992: 3; Ukadike 1994: 44ff.).[9] Film was thus closely related to governmental and imperial interests and employed to create loyal subjects. Placing film in the service of “civilization”, the CFU avoided screening films that criticized or ridiculed aspects of Western life, thereby denying Africans access to the whole field of Western cinematic representation (cf. Diawara 1992: 1).

The Gold Coast Film Unit, which was to produce local films, took up themes particularly relevant to the Gold Coast. These movies, too, were to serve colonial interests and the attention was on “purposes of better health, better crops, better living, better marketing and better human co-operation in the colonies” (Middleton—Mends 1995: 1; cf. also Diawara 1992: 5). As these objectives were thought to be best achieved “on the native soil with native characters” (Middleton-Mends ibid.), from 1948 onwards the unit started training African filmmakers.[10] Similar film units existed in other parts of British colonial Africa, and their products were mutually exchanged and shown to audiences all over British colonial Africa.

In a very interesting publication, Morton-Williams has presented the results of his research on the reception of so-called fundamental education films by rural Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa audiences in Nigeria, which he conducted for the Colonial Office.[11] “Fundamental education”, as the author explains, refers to attempts by the British Colonial Administration “to instill motives and the requisite technical skills to improve the material conditions of life, and to make it possible to apprehend, in some degree, the relationship of the rural community to the rest of the territory and to the world” (1953: xii). Next to brief descriptions of the content of thirty-four films (made by the CFU in England, film units in Africa and commercial producers) which address topics from “clean cooking” to “the circulation of blood”, his study provides detailed overviews of audience reactions to these films. Although this study focuses on Nigeria, I see no reason to doubt that these and similar films would have been shown in the Gold Coast as well and that audiences would have reacted in similar ways.

According to Morton-Williams, the bulk of the films falls into the categories health films, farming films, and village development films. The basic message of all these films, of course, is a demonstration of the superiority of Western knowledge and of how sticking to traditions not only implies backwardness, but also leads to ill health and poverty. Indeed, in the light of Michael Taussig’s distinction explained earlier, it may be concluded that the films sought to establish colonial authority on the basis of the exposure of existing magical beliefs as false. Here, magic was represented as modernity’s other.

Mamadou Niang

Mamadou Niang is an international journalist, reporter, and producer with more than twenty-five years of experience covering news and making documentaries and human-interest pieces for global television. Niang has been a senior producer in the New York bureau of France Télévions for more than twenty years. He has filed countless stories covering the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

18th NY African Film Festival – Full Screening and Event Schedule

Museum of Art and Design

Date Screen Time Film Title
SAT APR 2 3:00pm Panel Discussion and African Rhythmus

Walter Reade Theater

* Directors will be in attendance

Date Screen Time Film Title
WED APR 6 2:00pm Shooting with Mursi and Lezare
  4:00pm Soul Boy and Ousmane
  6:00pm Sierra Leone and Tanzania Celebrate Independence
  8:00pm* Soul Kinshasa Symphony and Bongo Barbershop
THU APR 7 1:30pm The Witches of Gambaga, The Deliverance of Comfort, Taharuki, and Phyllis
  3:20pm Besouro and Ebony Goddess
  6:00pm* Africa First Shorts
  8:30pm* A Trip to Algiers
FRI APR 8 1:30pm Kongo and Why Are They Here? Chinese Stories in Africa
  3:30pm* Kinshasa Symphony and Bongo Barbershop
  6:15pm* Stolen
  8:15pm* Viva Riva!
FRI APR 9 4:45pm* For the Best and for the Onion and
Bondo: A Journey into Kono Womanhood
  6:45pm* Besouro and
Ebony Goddess
  9:30pm An Uncommon Woman
MON APR 10 2:00pm* One Way, a Tuareg Journey and Say Grace Before Drowning
  4:00pm* Thembi and excerpts from Thembi’s Radio Diaries with slideshow
  6:15pm Soul Boy and Ousmane
  8:30pm* Africa United
MON APR 11 2:00pm Viva Riva!
  4:15pm An Uncommon Woman
  6:30pm* Shooting with Mursi and Lezare
  8:30pm* The Witches of Gambaga, The Deliverance of Comfort, Taharuki, and Phyllis
TUE APR 12 3:00pm Sierra Leone and Tanzania Celebrate Independence
  4:30pm One Way, a Tuareg Journey and Say Grace Before Drowning
  6:15pm* Kongo and Why Are They Here? Chinese Stories in Africa
  8:30pm* Stolen

Institute of African Studies,
Columbia University

Date Screen Time Film Title
THUR APR 14 1:00pm Mining for Change
  4:00pm Black Venus
  7:00pm Panel Discussion

Maysles Cinema

Date Screen Time Film Title
RI APR 29 7:30pm Zimbabweís Forgotten Children
SAT APR 30 3:30pm All I Wanna Do
  5:00pm Jazz Mama, A Blues for Tiro
  7:30pm Ladies in Waiting, Shouting Silence
SUN MAY 1 3:00pm Alexís Wedding, North-South.com
  5:00pm Zero Tolerance, Driving with Fanon

Big Screen Project

Date Screen Time Film Title
FRI MAY 2O 6:00pm I Am Cuba


Date Screen Time Film Title
THU MAY 26 6:50pm
One Small Step and Pumzi
FRI MAY 27 2:00pm
A Screaming Man
SAT MAY 28 2:00pm
Kirikou and the Wild Beast
Shirley Adams
SUN MAY 29 2:00pm
A Screaming Man
  6:50pm* Restless City
MON MAY 30 2:00pm
African Shorts
Dr. Cruel, Freddy Ilanga: Che’s Swahili Translator, A History of Independence, Guew Bi–Sabar Dances of Senegal
Beyond the Ocean
TUE MAY 31 4:30pm

Still, The Fire in the Belly: The Confessions of Ousmane Sembene

The meeting has been under way for well over two hours, and the seven participants do not seem exhausted after strings of passionate exchanges. The scene could have been ripped from a chapter of Ousmane Sembène’s fifth novel, God’s Bits of Wood, in which the women deliberate their plan of attack against the oppressive and brutal foreign railroad overlords of the Dakar-Niger line. It is also reminiscent of a scene in Guelwaar where Baye Ali, the village chief summons the Muslim elderr, Kilife, to discuss the profanity of the burial of Pierre-Henri Thioune, a Christian, in a Muslim cemetery.

We are at Sembène’s quarters, located in a busy commercial street in downtown Dakar. He has converted a single family house into a spacious work space, allowing collaborators and strapped colleagues a place they can call office. A well kept flower garden sits in the middle of the courtyard, opposite a zinc-roofed conference area. Most of the filmmakers seated around the table, veteran Senegalese directors and screenwriters, are little known internationally. But they’re part of a group Sembène calls waa ker gee, a Ouolof [Wolof] expression meaning “the family.” Fifteen years ago, they formed the African Filmmakers Committee, a regional organization which includes more that twenty notable directors from neighboring countries. They’re discussing perennial issues — inadequate production resources and creative ways of addressing the failure of African governments to support the film community with innovative cultural policies.

Sembène has just reached his seventy-fourth birthday, and, as he puts it, “I am an old youngster with the faith of an adolescent.” Perhaps he feels this way because his career did not start until he was well over forty. First, he was a novelist.

Sembène’s urge to write was fueled by the rage against the oppressive nature of the colonial state and its dialectical relationship with injustice. He has been an activist since his days working in a Marseilles shipyard, an experience which inspired his first novel Le Docker Noir. Now the novelist-filmmaker is presiding over this strategic meeting of Senegalese filmmakers to chart solutions for the most enduring conundrum facing African filmmakers: how to show the films they make so that African audiences can see them. Like the protagonists in his films and his novels, Sembène takes on this mission with intensity and tenacity. The problem of distribution, reaching African audiences, has been a life-long struggle.

He took up the daunting task of filmmaking in a place with no equipment, no labs, and only with a handful of theaters, tightly controlled by European distributors and packed with Hollywood action films and Indian melodramas. After completing his first feature in 1963, Borom Sarret, Sembène stubbornly thought he could break their hold. He found some relief in making the rounds on a bicycle to remote villages where he could show the film to enthusiastic crowds after nightfall. These encounters convinced him that cinema has the potential to be an educational tool. Sembène has come to believe his generation has an immense role in the political process. Since his first film l’Empire Sonhrai, an epic of African resistance to colonialism set in Timbuktu, all of his tales have told the paradoxes bedeviling Senegalese society. According to Sembène, artistic work should inform Africans about the continuing transformation of post-colonial societies; they must be tools for empowerment and enlightenment.

The stories Sembène tells — be it satire (the quirks of the Senegalese political class and bureaucrats as in Xala) or scathing commentary of evangelism (Christian or Muslim, helped by African surrogates as in Ceddo) — have the necessary conspicuous political edge to challenge African audiences to own up to the unfinished business of de-colonization. They are told with pointed wit. His brilliant command of African oral narrative traditions elevates the most casual and routine anecdotes to soaring drama. He can endlessly recreate every day life with sequences of eloquent silence, giving his stories deadpan/ironic qualities which mirror the tangled lives of ordinary Senegalese citizens. He can recount the most shocking tale and give wretchedness a charming veneer.

Sembène’s cinematic gift and pioneering achievement have won him much praise at home in Africa and abroad. But the advent of a younger breed of filmmakers with original and adventurous talents has created new rivalries. He is derided by some for what they term “his elderly cockiness.” These attacks reveal more of the young filmmakers’ frustrations with Sembène’s omnipresent style of filmmaking, charisma, and international fame in comparison to their accomplishments. Sembène says coolly, “We’ve lost our sense of history in Africa; the last one to arrive always wants to lead.”

In many ways, he is indeed the de facto ambassador of African cinema. His films are distributed throughout the world and studied in liberal arts departments everywhere. His media-genic charm takes him to places where African culture is celebrated. And in spite of criticism, his enormous legacy is the affirmation of his originality. Prominent among his peers, Ousmane Sembène showed Africans how to map their stories on celluloid and defined a film language to follow Borom Sarret. His independent spirit, and unwillingness to compromise principles — which have caused him many a crash landing — are moral criteria for many artists. In his own way, he is one of the last custodians of unfettered artistic integrity.

A Conversation

Mamadou Niang: I’m curious about the way you shuttle between the novel and filmmaking. It is not usual for writers, and it shouldn’t be easy for you who put almost all of your novels on the screen. How does Sembène “the writer” get to filmmaking, and how does Sembène “the filmmaker” get back to writing?

Ousmane Sembène: Well! I must confess it’s not always easy. A screenplay is a book written in telegraphic form, and the dialogues which have to respect a carefully planned timing. You cannot be verbose. You must resort to mimics, body language, eye contact, the movements of actors, etc… I think they are separate trades, but they’re not incompatible for me, I’m used to it since I’ve been doing it for over 30 years.

MN: Is it conceivable that the novelist filmmaker Sembène takes to the screen a novel or a screenplay written by some one else?

OS: No! I don’t think so. I could be interested in a book, and with the accord of the writer, develop a screenplay, but it would be an adaptation.

MN: There are directors who are not writers, they are not auteurs. They’re called in to direct some one else’s idea.

OS: People have different talents; Some have a visual intelligence, but lack the imaginative thinking that writing requires. But this separation has more to do with the parts of the world where ‘filmmaking’ is an industry. We’re talking about specialization here, where in Europe or in America you may have four persons working on a screenplay, before the studio even names a director. But that’s an enrichment; that’s a luxury. There are no written rules. Nothing is absolute in this business.

MN: So, then you could work in that context?

OS: Yes, one can be both a woodcutter and a sculptor at once.

MN: Of all your writing and films, has there been a time you would call a defining moment throughout your long career; It could also be a moment of fulfillment, of triumph?

OS: I’ve loved everything I’ve done at the moment I am doing it. It’s the next thing that obsesses me. I’m not in the habit of psychoanalyzing myself, but I’m taken totally by the task at hand. Once the work is completed, which I hope is of the highest quality I can deliver, then it belongs to the public. It’s no longer mine.

MN: But I bet you’ve had moments of great satisfaction.

OS: Oh yes! After I’ve put that final touch, it’s a satisfying feeling. Writing, or making a film is many, many months of adventure. It is a gratifying moment when you put the final dot, and sign the release for the publication of a novel; or when you finish mixing sound for a film and see the audience coming into the theater. See, I’m a craftsman, I’m not an artist. I take pleasure in the work I do, but it is a process, pruning, carving, trimming… writing, re-writing. It’s work that needs to be done well. Never a extraordinary jubilation, but always a happy feeling.

MN: I imagine that the filmmaker Sembène is more popular than the writer Sembène. Does it frustrates you that most people in Africa only know the filmmaker, or do you think that the public appreciates both equally?

OS: I am generally happy about the way my work is received. But I wished that our peoples in Africa spent more time reading, and then go to the movies. Reading and movies are both means of intellectual and cultural nourishment. I’ve always said that cinema in Africa is an evening class, a “continuing education” at this stage of its development in our societies. But we must make good films which address our struggles. There’s no point in making films to simply entertain or bore people with protest films about labor rallies. Our films must for an hour and a half or two entertain, but also inspire and make the headlines of conversations in the workplace, and in the homes.

Reading is a privilege. It’s a solitary project. People who read a lot, who strive for knowledge are persons of great mind. Other people’s thoughts help us better access our own. I wish my people were the biggest readers in mankind and the best moviegoers. I’ve always thought that reading and cinema should be considered in legislative debates involving quality of life and sustainable development issues. They play a major influence in how we live, and what we do. Beauty belongs to everyone. We all like things beautiful.

MN: Do you have the same expectations when you finish a novel, as when you wrap a film?

OS: No. Each work has a life of its own, and makes its own way to the public. Today, it looks like each work has its own audience.

MN: Is there a distinction between Sembène the filmmaker and Sembène the writer?

OS: Yes, they are different. But it’s like you want to separate the cold from the hot water you poured in the same sink. The two approaches are distinct, I am pursuing two different forms, but it’s the same “Sembène.”

Further, using multiple mediums, I felt was a necessity, I’ve always tried to explore how to make my work more accessible to people. How as an artist, a witness of my time, and member of my society, I can bring my contribution like the tailor, the shoemaker, like anyone else. And I always ask myself: why society needs artists? What do we need artists for?

The Trees of Specificity: Gaston Kaboré

Jude G. Akudinobi: How would you define African cinema?

Gaston Kaboré: When I speak about African cinema, I am addressing the historical context of the birth of a cinema in Africa, the conditions in which filmmakers across the continent are trying to portray their realities, and how they are speaking about their histories and their cultural backgrounds, like elsewhere in the world. So, when I say African cinema, names like Med Hondo, Yusuf Chahine, Isaac Mabhikwa, Souleymane Cissé, Kwah Ansah, Ola Balogun, Safi Faye, Anne Mungai, Sara Maldoror, Tsitsi Dangarembga, among many others, come to mind. It is about how filmmakers are trying to repossess their vision and from these few names that I have just mentioned, it is clear that there is no particular way of making films in Africa. I hope that we will continue to have a diversity of films, narratives, styles, and so on.

JGA: What do you make of this talk, lately, about trying to universalize African cinema?

GK: It doesn’t represent my point of view; it’s a different perspective, you know. Those people are saying that we do not care to make a specific cinema, we just want to make films like America or Hollywood to create a market, make money and so on. But I think it is an illusion because the Americans first count on their own market before the markets outside. Even more, it is because they are strongly rooted in their own land, that they are able to conquer the rest of the world with stories about uniquely American situations. Sometimes, we are insecure and feel that we have to imitate others to be recognized by them. I think that the more rooted we are in our own land, the more we can expect to be respected by the West, the more they will see our work as significant cinema. Otherwise, we will be doing very, very…

JGA: Poor imitations?

GK: Of course. This does not mean, however, that one wants to make esoteric films. No. I inspire myself with oral traditions, the traditional way of telling stories in my culture, and invest that with my expertise in film because I want to tell stories to my people first. I know that through this approach I can, also, reach audiences all over the world. My films have proved that this is possible. To me, therefore, universalism is an illusion invented by Hollywood, to subdue the cinematic expressions of the rest of the world. As long as you speak to the human condition (to fear, illusions, dreams) you will be understood by audiences from the South Pole to North. So, we must continue to plant this tree of specificity. There are standards, of course, but that is a different matter. I also know that there are many ways of telling stories even in the US. You have quite different styles and temperaments of filmmaking in the US and it is important that we keep this diversity. Universalism, for me is born from specificity, not the contrary.

JGA: Could you speak a little bit about your sources of inspiration and how they shape your directorial vision?

GK: I think the freer one is in the sphere of creation, the better. I even try to escape my own auto-censor because sometimes you just censor yourself without realizing it. My sources of inspiration come from basic human experiences and my fields of study. I studied history before cinema and started teaching cinema even before my first film. I wanted to learn the language of cinema so as to investigate how documentary filmmaking today still perpetrates stereotypes about Africa. Subsequently, I wanted to apply the cinematic medium to history. My goal was to use cinema not only to record history, but to tell stories, as well, and bring my audience to identify with itself, through the characters that I create. That way, I am able to participate in history. In other words, I wanted to use cinema as a tool for reconstructing the collective memory, excavating history, trying to define who I am, where I am going and so on. Those sources, elements especially, inspired my first fiction film, Wend Kuuni. I am not a fruit of hazard or chance. I have a history and believe that the way I see has already been sketched by prior generations. For me, therefore, it is important to show that we have a specific sensitivity, a vision of the world and our rationality.

JGA: Manthia Diawara has written that making his film, Rouch in Reverse, was a rite of passage, a process through which he has come to discover something of himself. How would you react to that?

GK: I think that Rouch is, somehow, a drama for Africans. I do not want to make easy statements about the experience of Manthia with Rouch because I cannot judge it. I know Rouch personally and think that Rouch is Rouch. He is a French guy who came to Africa and shot films. Some of them are quite interesting. So, we have to see it through his own experience of being a French anthropologist shooting in Africa. Those give us some elements of investigation. But we should not mix it with other things. I do not say that my film is more true or less true than Rouch is. My film is mine and my position is different from Rouch. I do not have to define myself according to Rouch. Rouch exists, Gaston exists. Period.

JGA: This obviously raises a cluster of questions for the discourse of African cinema, especially around the issues of subjectivity, agency, and such like … true?

GK: The problem is that, always, the African is seen like a child, you know. When I say it is a drama, it is because there is a lot of confusion in some minds whether to take Rouch like an African filmmaker. I disagree; not because I am ostracizing him. No! Only because even if I stay in France for four decades making films, I never become French. In my culture and it should be the same in yours, it is said that the piece of wood does not become a crocodile because it has stayed long in the water. I think that we have to pass this Jean Rouch trauma. Why should we define ourselves or take any position through Jean Rouch? I don’t see the necessity. I don’t see the necessity.

JGA: In what ways then, do you think African cinema can assert its specificity and perhaps challenge certain stereotypes of Africa?

GK: By making films, period. We have been making films for very long, yet our history, legends, and mythology are so rich, you know. The more we make films, the more the cinema in Africa will specify itself. Ousmane Sembéne once said that we will make African films by making films. So, let us make films which speak to ourselves and in time, we will see an aesthetic, rhythm, and styles evolve. The challenge involves intellectual work and, creativity. We have to think about our choices, why we do this and that, and through all those dynamics we will see something come up. I do not try to make films like Gaston. I just try to be myself and make films; in this way, our films are going to exist, with their specificities. Challenging stereotypes should not only be a task for cinema, because it is so pervasive and calls for tremendous work between scholars and filmmakers. I don’t say I am going to make a film to respond to Jean Rouch, I just try to make what I feel has to do with my personal history.

JGA: Comment a bit, if you will, on the discourse of change in your films?

GK: All societies contain internal dynamics of change. To me it was important for my first film, Wend Kuuni, not to get into this so-called opposition between traditional Africa and modern Africa because again we are put in prison by others who say: just stay here, this is the place where you can play. The film shows that we our own self-reliant societies, with the good and bad, with oppressions but, also, rebellions and everything. Further, there is a parallel between the story of this young boy and Africa itself muted by colonialism recovering the voice to tell its own history, and story. It is really important that we keep confident in our capability to think for ourselves. All my films speak about rootedness and reconnections because sometimes one loses bearings. So we always have to revisit certain things.

JGA: Could you, briefly, give your take on the issue of funding and its implications for specificity in African cinema?

GK: Funding, of course, raises questions of perspective and target audiences since African cinema depends, largely, on the West for its production. Even then, I think the issues are similar to the experiences of independent filmmakers living in the West trying to make different cinemas and who, more or less, make compromises to get funding. I would prefer that we find the money in Africa, so that we are more free to do what we want, in accordance with our own ideals and the needs of our people. But since we have to seek funding in the West, we have, each of us, to examine the nature and extent of compromise. It is the responsibility of each filmmaker. There is, however, a residual risk that the axes of our inspiration could shift towards outside expectations. That is the danger. But I think that it has to be seen film by film.

JGA: How do you think the situation could be effectively addressed?

GK: We can put the spotlight on this danger and say to the respective governments in Africa that if the continent wants to have it’s own vision, we have to establish the possibilities of funding our films mainly in Africa because nobody else is going to do it. I think that is our responsibility.There are lots of festivals dedicated to African cinema, for instance, yet we don’t see much in terms of promotion of the films. I think the situation poses very critical questions which have to be addressed with meticulous care.

JGA: On a final note, what are your thoughts about the study of African cinema in Western institutions?

GK: I feel it is interesting because once a film has been made, it belongs to anybody who wants to see it, and would like to think and write about it. A film renews its life at every screening and it should be something dynamic. So, I respect the work others do with my film once it is made. I think the filmmakers and scholars have different levels of responsibilities and, to me, any serious work on the films should include an analysis of the narrative content, aesthetic strategies, contexts of production and everything else. In other words, the films have to be analyzed on their own terms. There has to be a constant negotiation of certitudes. The scholars are there for the filmmakers and should pose questions rather than certitudes.


Gaston Kaboré’s contributions to the development of filmmaking in Africa go beyond his unprecedented third-term as Secretary General of the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers, Fepaci, to include the remarkable efforts he has made toward establishing Burkina Faso as a veritable hub of African cinema. As a director, his film credits include <i>Wend Kuuni</i> (1982), <i>Zan Boko</i> (1988), <i>Rabi</i> (1992), and <i>Buud Yam</i> (1997) which won the prestigious Etalon de Yennenga at the 1997 FESPACO, in addition to featuring at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. In this interview with Jude G. Akudinobi, Gaston Kaboré journeys through the debates and issues which frame contemporary African cinema to state, quite boldly, that specificity is central to any serious discussion of African cinema.

African Cinema in the Nineties

For African cinema, the final decade of this century has been a mixed bag of promises, hopes, achievements, and continued struggle and frustration with the same set of issues and challenges that have always confronted filmmakers throughout the continent. Hopes and projections of political and economic renewal and transformation under the aegis of World Bank-mandated adjustment programs, and other liberalization measures, and the positive fall-out that these were expected to have, especially on the cultural sector, actually turned out to be disastrous. African filmmakers began to experience the painful effects of budget cuts and the gradual loss of both external and internal funding for production. At the same time, the slow but orchestrated disappearance of movie houses, one of the sad occurrences of the ’90s, began as privatization, made possible by local entrepreneurs who, in time, converted these into warehouses for sugar, rice, cement, and other commodities. These conditions contributed to intensifying the perennial crisis of production, distribution, and exhibition of African cinema on African soil, so that barely three years to the end of the century the lingering shadows of this crisis continue to hover and obscure the few notable achievements of the last decade.

Responses to this crisis on the part of African filmmakers ranged from the usual accusations of ignorance and neglect of culture industries by African states and entrepreneurs, to indictment of the marginalization of African cinema by countries of the North, and to the deployment of various individuals as well as collective efforts to reverse this crisis in a more durable fashion. Notable in the latter category are the recent efforts to refashion the Panafrican Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) into a more active body and voice for African cinema, the establishment of Union desateurs et Entrepreneurs Culturels de l ’Afrique de l ’Ouest (UCECAO), on the initiative of veteran Malian filmmaker Souleyemane Cisse and others.

Developments in Southern Africa, particularly with the dismantling of formal apartheid in South Africa and the end of the RENAMO insurgency in Mozambique, have opened up new opportunities for production, distribution, exhibition, and partnerships including other forms of networking and capacity building. New production houses and other film-related ventures have sprung up in Zimbabwe (The African Script Development Fund, The Film Training School in Harare, Framework International, Media for Development Trust, Zimmedia, Africa Film and TV) and in Mozambique (Ebano Multimedia, under the direction of veteran filmmaker Pedro Pimenta). Some of these production houses have been instrumental in enabling productions by new and young filmmakers such as the first feature by Zimbabwean writer-turned- filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga’s, Everyone’s Child (1997), Isaac Mabhikwa’s More Time (1993) and many others. They have also enabled filmmakers from other parts of Africa to film in Southern Africa.

The Southern African Film Festival (SAFF), under the direction of Zimbabwean filmmaker Isaac Mabhikwa, is fast emerging as a prominent venue for filmmakers from the region and elsewhere on the continent, as well as for filmmakers from the African diaspora. SAFF, by holding its fourth festival in October 1998 in Harare, along with the Cape Town Southern African Film and TV Market, now joins Carthage and FESPACO as one of the major film festivals on the continent.

South Africa holds a great deal of promise for African cinema. This past year has witnessed what, perhaps, is a sign of things to come. The first major feature film directed by a black South African was released this year. Titled Fools (1998), the film is directed by Ramadan Suleman, who was associated with Souleyemane Cissé, and produced by the South African production house, Natives At Large, Ebano Multi-Media from Mozambique, and others. The film is an adaptation of a short story by South African writer Njabulo Ndebele.

Furthermore, South Africa film industry leader, Interleisure (recently acquired by Primedia, owner of the Ster-Kinekor theater chain in the sub-region) has recently entered into partnership with the black South African investment group, Thebe Investment Trust. This alliance will create the Ster-Moribo chain to operate cinema theaters primarily in the black townships. Will African films eventually wind their way into this giant empire, whose mainstay at the moment is primarily Hollywood films? Will this be the start of more investment in African XX-film production? This is the challenge for African cinema in the “New” South Africa.

Co-productions and other forms of production partnerships between African filmmakers and film companies from different parts of the continent have registered some encouraging developments in the 90s. One witnesses an increasing turn toward South Africa. There is a gradual trend for filmmakers to cross various kinds of borders to shoot their films in locations and languages outside of their countries of origin and, at the same time, use technicians, actors, actresses, and other resources and facilities available in these countries. This has been the case with Souleyemane Cissé, who ventured from Mali into Zimbabwe to film his epic Waati, a story set in Southern and West Africa with a multi-lingual set of characters. Similalry, Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Békolo’s film, Aristotle’s Plot (1995) , benefited from co-production arrangements with the Zimbabwe-based Framework International, and the film, which is in English, also features South African actors. More recently, Idrissa Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso, shot his latest feature, Kini and Adams (1997), on location in Domboshawa, Zimbabwe, again with the collaboration of Framework International, and a Zimbabwean and South African crew and cast.

The fact that this film was done entirely in English hints of a more pronounced and interesting shift toward a polyglot African film practice, evidence of the readiness or resolve of filmmakers to make full use of the available languages of the continent over and beyond their own, no matter what their level of competence or performance. In opting for a narrative marked by a pronounced geo-cultural indeterminacy and using English instead of Moré or French–the language of his previous films–is Ouedraogo positing new and different imperatives for African cinema and enabling it to break out of its present crisis of perennial struggle and marginalization in the industry? Is it a turn toward or a desire for greater “diversality” (some would say universality) make African films more appealing and marketable to broader audiences? If, so what are the costs and benefit of this presumed “diversality”?

For Merzak Allouache of Algeria, director of Omar Gatlato (1976), Bab El-Owed City (1994) and Salut Cousin (1996) the issue is one of integrity. He asks his fellow African filmmakers: “… are we losing a sense of our own reality, are we compromising cinematic content for ‘northern’ funding?” This sentiment has been echoed by many other filmmakers who voice concern about the sometimes blatant tendency of funders to dictate the content and form of African films. Cheik Oumar Sissoko, the Malian filmmaker whose film Guimba (1995) won the Grand Prize at FESPACO in 1995 and who is currently finishing his latest film, La Genese (Genesis), suggests “universal themes are the compulsory path that our cinema has to take to make a name for itself.”

These issues and many others about narrative content, form, style, technique and execution will continue to fuel much of the debate and commentary on the future of African cinema and, surely, more informed analyses will emerge in the years to come. In the meantime, a cursory glance at some of the recent productions in African cinema reveals a trend toward greater diversity and plurality of stories, styles, techniques, themes, and ideologies. Some filmmakers are attracted or pushed toward stories presumed to be universal either in content, reference, inference, or implication, while others opt for the local and the particular. In a way, these trends are not mutually exclusive, for few things are universal that are not anchored in some specificity, so that many who claim the universal label still find themselves departing from defined geo-cultural, political, and historical contexts.

For example, the film Guimba (1995) is about tyranny, the abuse of power and privilege, and the resistance to such excesses. These are themes and experiences that are shared by all societies around the world. Similarly, Gaston Kaboré’s 1997 FESPACO Grand Prize winning film, Buud Yam, is about universal features such as love, duty, obligation, struggle, pain, and attachment to family and community. However, it is only through the specificities of their narrative modes, inscriptions of their cultures, the gestures, the languages, the costumes, the music, etc., that any such universal features emerge. So obvious is this fact that it becomes nonproductive most of the time to speak in terms of universal this or universal that.

Many filmmakers are showing increasing interest in subjects which have been relatively undeveloped in the past. The muffled allusions to romance, sexuality, and desire, characteristic of quite a sizable segment of earlier African cinema, have become more pronounced and developed in a few of the recent productions, even constituting the narrative vehicle of some. Interpersonal relations, romance, bold assertions of sexual and other identities and desires, and the cultural and religious impediments and sanctions to these assertions — the myriad exigencies of a problematic modernity and the formidable challenges of a restless young population now in the tentacles of “devaluation” (devalisation), MTV, and a poorly digested African American hip-hop popular culture — these constitute the focus, in one way or another, of films such as Dakan (1997) by Mohamed Camara of Guinea, Essaida (1996) by Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Zran, the elegant and somewhat tragic Machaho (1996) by Algerian Belcachem Hadjaj, Mossane (1996) by Senegalese Safi Faye, The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1995) by Flora Gomes of Guinea-Bissau, and Bab El-Owed City (1994) and Salut Cousin (1996) by Algerian Merzak Allouache, to name just a few.

Salut Cousin is a remarkable achievement in its skillful blend of comedy, spectacle, and romance to project a poignant commentary on African immigration to France as well as to offer a new vision of African Arab romance and solidarity in the persons of the Algerian fellow and the Senegalese woman. Another equally compelling achievement is the new film of Jilali Ferhati from Morocco, Chevaux de fortune, a refreshing re-take of the perennial theme of the pull and push factors of emigration.

Recent productions also feature a number of works that in some ways continue and build on trends and orientations that were the hallmarks of the ’70s and ’80s. The socio-political commentary, the interrogations of cultural practices and customs — especially their exploitation and abuse for individual profit — and the indictment of inequity and repression are themes that resurface in some of the new films. Tableau Feraille (1996) directed by Senegalese Moussa Sene Absa looks at the question of culture, politics, and gender in the context of contemporary post-devaluation urban Senegal, while Adama Drabo of Mali uses reversal as a narrative and structuring device in his new film Taafe Fanga (1997) to interrogate the issue of gender in a highly amusing and effective fashion.

Drabo’s film provokes a rethinking of gender roles as natural and teases us to consider them as social constructs. The film immerses us in certain aspects of Dogon culture in similar ways to that of Gaston Kabore’s latest film Buud Yam which deploys a quest motif as a structuring device to chronicle the eco-cultural diversity of Burkina Faso within the framework of Wend Kuuni’s search for the medical practitioner to cure her adopted sister Pognere. This “sequel” to Kabore’s first film is evidence of a certain continuity in African film subjects and styles. In fact, one can draw parallels between Buud Yam, Safi Faye’s Mossane, and Flora Gomes’ Po Di Sangui (1996) to the extent to which all three mine their respective society’s repertoire of myths and narrative styles to inform their films.

The subject of African history continues to command the attention of African filmmakers as they continue the task of making sense of the distant and recent past in ways that speak with significance to the present and the future. In addition to Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli’s elegant Les silences du palais, which is set in the time of the last Tunisian monarchs, and Haile Gerima’s record-setting film on slavery Sankofa, two young Ethiopian filmmakers have recently contributed technically refined and analytically sophisticated reappraisals of the last two decades of the Ethiopian feudal monarchy and repressive military dictatorship. Yemane Demissie’s Tumult (1996) and Salem Mekuria’s Deluge (1996) engage these aspects of the Ethiopian experience with a great deal of invention, imagination, and nuance. Also worth noting is the recent “re-vision” of the Algerian war of independence by Rachida Krim in her acclaimed film Sous les pieds des femmes (Where Women Tread).

Like Demissie, Mekuria, and Krim, Cameroonian Jean-Marie Teno and Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly, Zaire) also detail their perspectives on dictatorship, violence, repression, and the turbulent post-independence moment in their countries. Teno’s first long feature, Clando (1996), builds on the foundation of his impressive documentary work on various aspects of life in Cameroon under former President Ahmadou Ahidjo and current president Paul Biya. In Clando, Teno delves further into the geography and operations of repression and the strategies deployed by people to resist and negotiate such forces both in Cameroon and among Cameroonian immigrants in Germany.

Balufu’s Le Damier (1997) is, without doubt, one of the most inventive films to come out of African cinema in recent years. A fine blend of play, power, and politics, the film ingeniously exploits the liberating aspect of the popular game of draught (a version of chess), a leveling device, and a space where boundaries crumble, as a vehicle through which the oppressed talk back, insult, and humiliate the oppressor. The defeat of the head of state (figured as Mobutu Sese Seko) at the hands of the lowly champion from the ghetto is somewhat prophetic of what was in store for Mobutu.

Aristotle’s Plot (1996) by Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Békolo deals with the subject of cinema itself, more particularly, cinema in Africa and cinema by Africans. A meta-discourse on cinema, this film also uses play to deploy a cast of characters (with names like Van Danune, Schwartzenegger, and Bruce Lee), cinema, cineaste, and references to specific African filmmakers such as Safi Faye, Ousmane Sembene, and Souleyemane Cissé. The film interrogates the state and direction of cinema in Africa, the prevalence of non-African films on African screens, and the absence and presumed unpopularity of African films with African audiences. Underneath the playful surface of this film, which uses an English and South African cast of actors, is a compelling set of challenges and provocations from a young filmmaker to African filmmakers and observers. This is done using an approach and style generally associated with avant-garde and post-modernist tendencies.

Recent activity in the “New” South Africa will no doubt bring new dimensions to the already complex situation and questions of race and belonging, in particular. The works of white, anglo and Afrikaaner filmmakers from South Africa such as Michael Harmon’s noire Wheels and Deal (1991), the late Manie van Rensberg’s comedy Taxi To Soweto (1995), Ian Kerkoff’s bold and explicitly gay Nice To Meet You, Please Don’t Rape Me (1995) — formerly titled Confessions of A Yeoville Rapist — David Lister’s comedy Soweto Green (1963), Jump The Gun (1997) by Les Blair of Britain, and M-NET supported productions like Letting Go (1997) and The Sexy Girls (1997), will most likely rekindle debates on the place of white filmmakers in African cinema.

No doubt, as we draw closer to the fin de siècle, many of the seminal questions and themes raised in Békolo’s film and similar ones dedicated to African cinema will be debated and discussed with more urgency and purpose. For many, the voices are sincerely and persistently calling for imaginative and sustainable responses to the multi-faceted challenges of African cinema as technological hegemony and an increasingly savage global competition come of age. The mixed bag that has been the lot of African cinema in the ’90s could very well turn out to be a catalyst for different and more productive paths.